HL Deb 08 December 1976 vol 378 cc611-71

4.4 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, after that interesting and important interlude, which I was rather sorry I was precluded from joining in, I should like to ask the indulgence of the House for my maiden speech. In accordance with precedent, I shall try my best to avoid controversy, even at the cost of keeping well clear of some of the fascinating issues on which the Royal Commission, of which I was a member, was itself divided. But this approach has some advantage in that I can pick out some of the rather less glamorous parts of the Royal Commission's Report which, although they have not caught the public eye, nevertheless seem to me to be of considerable importance. I should like to refer, in particular, to local government, especially as I was also a member of the earlier committee to which reference has been made under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud—a committee which paved the way for quite a bit of the Royal Commission's own work.

On both of these bodies we encountered a good deal of disquiet about local government. It is, obviously, quite impracticable to assess statistically the exact extent of dishonesty in local government, as anywhere else; this is behaviour known only to two parties who have the best possible reasons for trying to keep their transactions secret. And it is very important to see the problem in proper perspective, against the high standards maintained by the vast majority of those in local government. Nevertheless, there have been a disquietingly large number of prosecutions and police investigations in recent years, and it seems to me that something more should be done to try to reduce the small but significant minority of those who prove not to measure up to acceptable standards.

I should like to make just two points. It seems to me, first, that positive steps are needed to make it more difficult for offences to be committed; and, secondly, that it should be made easier for anyone who suspects misbehaviour to get his suspicions listened to. Under the first head, out of the various recommendations made by the Royal Commission, I should like to emphasise those which are aimed at securing greater openness. It seems to me that the honesty of local government depends in good measure on the ability of the individual to make a clear distinction between, on the one hand, those interests which are of public concern, and, on the other, his own interests as an individual; and I believe that, to help in this, there is need for greater public disclosure.

The Redcliffe-Maud Committee and the Royal Commission were at one in calling for new provisions about the disclosure by councillors of pecuniary interests. We proposed that, at any meeting, a councillor who had a pecuniary interest should be required to disclose that interest orally whenever it arose, and that the present partial option of a general written notice was quite unsatisfactory. We thought that the offence of failure to disclose should no longer be treated solely as a summary offence; and it is perhaps a candidate for swimming against the mainstream of the rather oddly named Criminal Law Bill which is currently before your Lordships' House. As well as uping the possible penalties and providing for the possibility of trial on indictment, we also thought it important to extend the present six months' time limit for prosecution, since, in the nature of things, this is an offence which might well not come to notice for quite some time.

We thought, too, that a councillor who had disclosed a pecuniary interest should withdraw from the meeting, unless the Secretary of State had dispensed with the disability. And we thought that, where there had been such a dispensation, the councillor should be required to disclose both the nature of the interest and the existence of the dispensation. Since this particular suggestion conflicts with views which the noble Baroness has been expressing, I will not pursue it further lest, alas! I become involved in controversy.

Linked with all this is the proposition that councillors should be required to record particulars of their interests in a register open to public inspection. I am well aware that many people in local government have genuine doubts about this. I am well aware, too, that the register of interests in another place is not universally regarded as an unqualified success. But the position of local councillors is rather different from that of Members of Parliament. They take executive decisions, with a direct and immediate local impact; and the proposal for a register of interests is entirely consistent with the theme of greater openness. These changes require legislation, but there are others which could be achieved by administrative means, and these were touched on earlier in the debate.

Just to recapitulate, the Royal Commission saw a particular need for up-to-date advice to be given about the handling of contracts; the selection of consultants; and the treatment of schemes for comprehensive development. It is a considerable time since any such advice was given. Even in these hard times a great deal of money is involved in some of these schemes—a great deal indeed; and there are some very difficult technical questions. Local authorities ought to have the best technical advice, in the light of which they can settle procedures which are clearly defined and publicly known. Reference has already been made to the issue by the Department of the Environment of the first instalment of a code of procedure for local authority housebuilding, but this seems to be a rather modest start and I hope that more is to come soon.

To develop a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, the members of the Royal Commission were perfectly well aware that even if all their recommendations were implemented—and I have mentioned only a few—this would not stop the really determined wrongdoer, but they thought that it would diminish temptation and make it harder to go astray. I noticed that Mr. T. Dan Smith poured a certain amount of cold water on the Royal Commission's recommendations. He is certainly a considerable expert in this field, whose views command great respect; but the fact remains that in his evidence to us he told us that if the recommendations of the Redcliffe-Maud Committee which were later endorsed by the Royal Commission had been in force, especially those for greater openness, he would have found it much more difficult to carry through the malpractices which led to his downfall. It is a solemn thought, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already pointed out, that if Mr. Poulson had not been declared bankrupt and if he had not had the habit of meticulously keeping every scrap of correspondence, his misdeeds might have gone undetected, whereas I believe that the adoption of the Royal Commission's recommendations would effectively close up gaps which Mr. Poulson and his associates successfully exploited and which, for all we know, my Lords, may be even now being exploited by others. That, in a nutshell, is why I think that these recommendations are urgent.

I have spoken so far about making it more difficult to commit offences and now come, very briefly indeed, to my second point: the need to make it easier for anyone who has suspicions to get their suspicions listened to. I believe that the Department of the Environment commended to local authorities the proposal of the Redcliffe-Maud Committee that they should have well-publicised machinery to receive and investigate complaints from the public, although to what extent this has been carried out I have no information whatsoever. The Royal Commission, for their part, were much concerned about possible criminal behaviour, about the role of the police and about the fact that a potential complainant may not be certain that an offence has been committed and may certainly be chary of getting involved at all.

We made some novel and carefully thought out suggestions designed to ensure that such a citizen would be given access to experienced police officers. They were also, I am afraid, designed to ensure that once such a complaint had been aired it could not very easily be hushed up. Since these are changes not requiring legislation, I hope that when the Minister comes to reply he will be able to give us some words of comfort here. But I hope, too, that he will be able to tell us that consultations are going on about possible legislation. There is much to be done and not very much time to be lost if the law is to be changed in a not too distant Session.

Before I sit down, one final thought, taking a little further a point made by the noble Baroness, is that it seems to me that it is wrong to draw a sharp distinction between the public and the private sectors and to expect impeccable behaviour from public servants if the companies, bodies and individuals with whom they deal accept lower standards. The Royal Commission was limited by its terms of reference to those in public life, but that cannot be the whole story. If those in local government, for example, wrongly accept or, indeed, wrongly solicit inducements, whatever their responsibility, a grave responsibility, too, rests on those in the private sector who give those inducements.

I believe that standards in this country are high and, to judge by the accounts one reads constantly, I think that there are probably some countries in the world which would think they were doing pretty well if they attained our present standards. But there is certainly no room for us to be complacent. As has been said, if corruption is not checked, it spreads. Although action by the Government and by Parliament cannot be the complete answer, some steps can be taken to reduce the risks which, as recent prosecutions have painfully demonstrated, do certainly exist. Two independent bodies have laboured to suggest what some of those steps should be. I hope that they can be taken soon.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will agree that we have just listened to a model maiden speech. The whole House will wish to join with me in warm congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. on the address which he has just given to the House. It is an especial pleasure for me to follow the noble Lord because he was one of my colleagues on the Royal Commission. All of us who worked with him on the Royal Commission appreciated his calm and wise counsel, his gentle humour and his ability to calm some of the turbulences that occurred in the course of our controversies on the Royal Commission. I am sure that the House will wish to hear the noble Lord again and again on matters upon which his unrivalled experience and wisdom will be of value to our deliberations.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, should be congratulated on raising this matter in the generous spirit in which he commented on the wide-ranging matters of the report of the Royal Commission. He has done a service in regard to the difficult subject dealt with by the report, and it is welcome that we should have an opportunity of looking at this question perhaps a little in advance of another place; but surely we shall have to return to it in due season when different aspects of the report come up for closer examination.

Frankly, I share in the remarks made by the noble Lord about the disappointments of the report. I am personally conscious of them and, looking back, I think the Royal Commission was appointed too soon in the wake of the Poulson case, long before it was all over and when so much was still going to the courts and being prepared for the courts while we were sitting. Also, I consider that our terms of reference were either too wide to be brought within the compass of a Royal Commission that could sit for only a limited period, or too narrow to cover some of the issues which, rather late in the day, we realised were relevant to what we had been considering.

It was not that my colleagues on the Royal Commission did not go along with me or with Mrs. Ward-Jackson on the addenda that we contributed to the report. On the contrary, we were encouraged to go on with the thoughts that we there expressed. It was that we realised that these aspects of our inquiry had come to our minds too late to begin upon them at the beginning of this year, and I think it is a pity that we did not go more deeply into why this corruption took place. As I said in my own addendum, after over twelve months on this subject the—and I am quoting from paragraph 6 of my addendum on page 121: …inquiry boils down to the temptations arising from the commercial relationships between the construction and civil engineering industries and public bodies". That was what 90 per cent. of it was all about, and yet we did not go into such questions as to why it was apparently common form for building and construction industries to seek public contracts by favour and not only by tender.

There is an area there that we did not explore. Why was it necessary for them to come in this field, with money in their hands, with an attempt to erode the integrity of public officials and of elected representatives on local authorities? Was it because the size of the contracts was so important to the continuation of the employment of their capital assets and their work force? Was there too much at stake for particular companies to allow business to pass from their hands to others without making a determined effort—not all of it praiseworthy—to get the business for themselves? We did not go into that. In my submission, a much more detailed inquiry was needed into the framework, the composition, and the activities, the size of contracts, and the importance of those contracts to the firms concerned in order to get the full picture of why, at this boundary between private industry and public bodies, there was this temptation to offer and to receive bribes.

As for the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I did not intend to suggest that those who accept bribes are exonerated because somebody offered the bribes. There are always two people involved in a bribe, with equal responsibility for their own actions, but I feared all the time that we were concentrating upon the people who received the bribes and not upon the people who were offering them. That is the main point of the remarks that I am now making. I think we got bogged down for too long and in too much controversy on the issues which have excited a good deal of public opinion: Inland Revenue secrecy and the immunity of Members of Parliament.

I will deal with the question of Members of Parliament because I believe it is important to dispel one or two illusions about the nature of the immunities of Members of Parliament and the extent to which those immunities may be peculiar as compared with other Parliaments throughout the world. The truth of the matter is that we took no evidence at all on this. We devoted a whole chapter to the immunities of Members of Parliament without taking any evidence on the subject at all. At one time we thought of inviting Mr. Speaker or the Clerk of the House of Commons, but we realised that that would require a Resolution of the House of Commons. The possibility of friction between the Royal Commission and the House of Commons in order to obtain the evidence of Mr. Speaker or the Clerk of the House was an undesirable thing to encounter. Hence we did not pursue that. But it is quite a mistake to think that because our immunities date from the Bill of Rights of 1688 they are an archaic survivial to be swept away, something to which we should wish good riddance; something which tinder modern conditions is incompatible with the concept of equality before the law. All the European Parliaments have immunities and they do not date from 1688; they date from 1948.

I have taken the trouble to get the evidence which the Royal Commission did not have, concerning the position about Parliamentary immunity in other countries in the European Economic Community with which we have now a close connection. The position there is that the immunity of Members of our Parliament from action or proceedings for speeches and writings in the course and the performance of Parliamentary duties is common to all those countries where I made my inquiries—Austria, the Federal German Republic, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden and France. That is common throughout.

There is also a fairly common thread running through all the European Parliaments. No arrest or criminal proceedings, except where a Member of Parliament is caught red-handed committing a serious offence, can be undertaken without the consent of Parliament itself. This is an immunity which we do not have in the United Kingdom. The Netherlands is the only country which comes close to our own code of immunity, and there they provide that any charge against a Member of Parliament for an offence allegedly committed in the course of his duties must be dealt with by the Supreme Court and by no other court. We have not got that provision in our immunities, either.

Another thread running throughout the European Community is that any action against a Member of Parliament may be suspended on a request from the Parliament itself. Their emphasis is on no interference in the physical ability of the Member of Parliament to discharge his duties in the Parliament, whatever the charge against him, if Parliament believes that it is more necessary for him to be doing his Parliamentary duties than to be the subject of proceedings in a court outside. The German Ambassador, to whom I wrote on this matter, said: As German constitutional law goes very far in its concept of immunity, the Bundestag have been aware that abuse of this privilege might not meet with the understanding of public opinion, and the Bundestag have been reluctant to lift the immunity of Members of Parliament, but have done so; one might otherwise sec a gross misuse of the privilege". But I understand that the immunity in the Parliament of the German Federal Republic is complete, and yielded only by Parliament itself. I believe it has been yielded in general only in the case of traffic offences. That, at least, is the position in Europe.

But what will be the position of members of the European Assembly? What will be their immunity? Are they to have greater immunity in a European Assembly that we give to Members of Parliament at Westminster? Or are we to attempt a harmonisation of the immunities of the Members of the national Parliaments, as well as of the Assembly of the Community itself? These are important matters which will have to be considered when Parliament comes to look at this matter more closely, so I regret that, in fact, we dealt with this subject at all.

I do not believe that Parliament needs the assistance of a Royal Commission to take care of its immunities. Surely it should respond to public opinion and circumstances, and anything else which guides Parliamentary action, without going to a Royal Commission to examine whether the immunities are an archaic survival from 1688 or whether some naive concept of equality before the law should triumph over all else. Members of Parliament are in a dangerous occupation; they are in a ruthless field of activity where manoeuvre, conspiracy, anything, can be used against them for political damage. Imagine what a political trial would have sounded like with a Government majority in peril, if a Member of Parliament were removed from Parliament. These are issues of tremendous importance. I hope that in due season, Parliament will take a calm and rational view of its position. When Parliament comes to consider the position of its immunities, I hope it will decide to leave things as they are.

Now I come to the Inland Revenue. Here was an open breach on the Commission. There is no need to emphasise the sharp difference of opinion which occurred. I am not going to rehearse the arguments contained in the report itself. Just for a moment, I want to put the issue fairly and squarely to your Lordships' House. Should information sought under statutory powers, with penalties for refusal or wilful neglect, be used for any other purposes except those for which the information was demanded? That is the issue of principle. That is where you erect the barriers against bureaucracy, against the erosion of the rights of the citizen by Government or anyone else. What is to be the range of the all-seeing eye of the State? How far is it to go? Do the Department of Health and Social Security, when they come across evidence of a bigamous relationship, report it to the Director of Public Prosecutions or the police? I understand not.

Information received by them on a matter of this kind is given to them in the course of examining people's rights under the Social Security scheme. The Inland Revenue have breached their confidentiality in the past on only two occasions; one where there was a trial for murder and the other where there was a trial for treason. When the Board's decision was taken to disclose in those circumstances, capital punishment applied to both of them. The Board have not varied their practice of disclosure for murder and treason, even though capital punishment no longer applies to murder. The fact that people might be on trial for their lives led the Inland Revenue to feel that no considerations of the custody of secrecy should stand in the way of a fair trial and full investigation into matters connected with those crimes.

My Lords, if we are to dislcose information received for one purpose and if it is to be used for another, what are to be the grounds? What is to be the criterion upon which this disclosure should be made? Is it because public interest would be better served by disclosure than by confidentiality? Is it because we prefer the cure to be worse than the disease? Who is to say? Parliament is the final arbiter. I think it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Inland Revenue to maintain their relationship with the taxpayer if, when matters are either under correspondence or the subject of discussion at an interview, the Inland Revenue have to say—or they might, in a reprehensible way, not say—"What you are telling us may be used as evidence against some other person, nothing to do with income tax at all. Information you may give to us about your relationship with someone else may incriminate him as well as you". Are the Inland Revenue to be put in the position of the police, of the investigating authority, on matters which have nothing to do with tax law? Since when have tax inspectors been agents for the police on matters which have nothing at all to do with the Inland Revenue? These are the issues which have to be borne in mind.

It is easy to adopt a populist line. In my opinion the dissent in the report might even have been written by the Daily Mirror. It is populist and prejudiced, an appeal being made to the public reaction to the people who are "getting away with it". One must look at the thing more broadly than that. Finally, I come to my addendum. I think there are wider issues here than the Commission felt able to deal with. I was unhappy in my work on the Commission. Since 1974, I have been on four Commissions and Committees. I have been chairman of three and a member of one. This one was the Salmon Commission, and it was a very unhappy experience—I say that in the presence of the chairman—because it gave vent to prejudices and obsessions about particular issues before us which took far too much of our energy, of our temper, and of our time to resolve differences which were not really worth the amount of effort we devoted to them. Probably other aspects of our work may have been overlooked or neglected on that account. I feel that we have not yet dealt fully and adequately with this problem.

I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham: I tried to find a basis from which the whole thing could be raised to a higher moral plane, on which we could engage the minds and consciences of the public service, and say, "Look, for heaven's sake, keep the service clean. It is in your interest that we should be a clean public service". But I am afraid there is little basis in a report of a Royal Commission to take a high moral line and to lift the spirits of people. You have to be on a platform or in the pulpit, not in the dull lettering of a report of a Royal Commission. But, at the end of the day, I felt that people in the public sector must have felt that they were under deeper suspicion than the facts and circumstances justified. On the whole, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, the standards of probity in our public life are very high indeed compared with other countries. We all know that. The standard in the public service is very high indeed. Nothing that destroys their morale, nothing that puts them under an unjustified cloud of suspicion or depreciation is going to do the public service any good.

My Lords, I hope that as a result of this debate we can bring a fresh message to the public service, that we understand their problems, that we wish them to maintain the highest possible standards and, at the same time, warn others not to put the public services in the position where they may be tempted to accept favours in order to give rewards, contracts, or business to other people. I think it is a very big moral issue and one upon which we will have to be continuously at work; we must not just bury this report or even take sporadic action on it; we will have to keep it well to the fore in both the public and the private sector.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I beg your Lordships' indulgence in this my maiden speech. It is an apt phrase, for I feel as apprehensive as the most pusillanimous maiden contemplating her wedding day. This most trying ordeal is made no easier by the knowledge that I can in no way meet the splendour of the sublime eloquence and the heady erudition of so many of your Lordships. In fact I am not too pleased with the Government Whips for putting me down to speak after those lions of oratory and one pink panther who have just spoken. More particularly, I should like to say how my spirits flagged on hearing the offering of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, whose masterly speech made me feel how right I was in believing that my offering by comparison would be surely cast on the heap of mediocrity.

My Lords, I should like to declare an interest. I am a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. Furthermore, I am most happy and proud to declare that my noble and learned and well beloved relative was Chairman to the Royal Commissioners whose report we consider this day. Some might feel that any observations on my part are not only out of place, but, worse, fraught with familial danger. However, I am sure that your Lordships will be pleased to learn that I wish to attempt to make one point only and to make it as quickly as possible. High standards of conduct in public life in the local government sector might be better effected, encouraged and maintained by greater accountability to the ultimate contributors of their funds, namely, the ratepayers and taxpayers, and by the external audit of local government accounts, the result of submission of reports, and expert advice.

It is a strange anomaly that, even without bearing in mind that local government expenditure is currently running at some £13,000 million per annum, there is a lower standard of accountability in local government than that required by the smallest company. Many might feel that standards of accountability should be higher in government than in company law and practice. For instance, company shareholders, and in many cases loan capital creditors, have a statutory right to receive the annual accounts and reports thereon. The public have a statutory right to inspect local government accounts, but, as your Lordships will appreciate, in local government, as in so many aspects in life, a right or opportunity to look is not the same as a duty to submit, disclose or report.

Similarly, there is no statutory provision for external audit of local government accounts and reports thereon. By "external" I mean audit by independent firms outside local and national administration. At present local government accounts are audited by the district auditor, who is, of course, a civil servant. It will always remain in the minds of many, however misguided this may be, that the audited are auditing themselves. The majority of the members of the Government audit service are at present trained only within the somewhat narrow perspective of the Civil Service and in the company law sense are unqualified. By that I mean they are not seen to maintain those minimum standards of training and experience required of the members of the learned professional bodies approved by Statute to audit corporate financial statements. I in no way mean to imply, nor would I like it inferred, that the standards of training and the calibre of ability within the Civil Service are other than of the highest order. This is well known and much respected. However, exposure to the practices and skills in the competative and inventive worlds of commerce and industry must contribute towards a more healthy cost-effective and imaginative public service. These and other points are made far better than by me in the recommendations of the very heavy volume called the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Local Government Finance —that is the Layfield Committee. In my view, these recommendations should be borne in mind when considering the vital issues raised by the Salmon Report, itself a masterpiece of succinct reporting and sound judgment, more particularly when one considers that their terms of reference were almost as broad as man's experience.

Finally, I must thank your Lordships for your most courteous and kind and undeserved attention, which has been a balm to the wounds suffered in this my ordeal by fire. I feel over-rewarded.

4.47 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of DURHAM

My Lords, we have been fortunate in this debate to hear two maiden speeches, both of which contained many hints of good things to come. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will accept the assurance of this House that his apprehension was unjustified, because he has at least obeyed one cardinal rule which I believe most Members of your Lordships' House disobey. He has made one point and one point only. He has made it succinctly and he has made it factually. I am sure Members of your Lordships' House will look forward to the way in which in future he will bring his particular expertise to hear on the work of this House.

My Lords, before I make my own speech, may I apologise in advance to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for the fact that I may have to slip away before he replies to this debate. I was hoping that it might perhaps move on slightly faster than it has; but Durham is a long way away and I have to get back there tonight. apologise in advance.

I put myself down to speak in this debate because I felt it was appropriate that your Lordships should hear from somebody outside the political scene who can speak for an area that has suffered more than most in recent scandals. In reading this, in many ways, admirable report, I was particularly interested in Mrs. Ward-Jackson's addendum, and in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, with which he has just inspired us. I want to say how fully I agree with what Mrs. Ward-Jackson wrote in that addendum, and how I hope that we can look much more deeply, as she has suggested, at the causes of some of the troubles which this debate is about.

Just to put some flesh on the debate, I want to recount two personal experiences which, as it were, show the extremes within which believe we are debating this afternoon. The first experience was early in 1974, when a young councillor came to see me, deeply worried by what his inquiries were revealing and the network of corruption which he believed he was uncovering. He was experiencing himself all the evasions, the blockages, the frustrations and sheer downright skulduggery which are hinted at in the report and spelled out in detail in the writings of Mr. Milne. But perhaps the greatest fear in his mind was the extent of the corruption he was uncovering and how far it might involve people in high places. In short, he was at that stage afraid of another Watergate, and he came to me, I suppose, for moral reassurance that it was right to press on. I simply recount that, without any sort of judgment, because I believe it is important that Members of this House should understand the kind of atmosphere within which many people have had to operate, certainly in some parts of the country.

The second experience was a meeting with a group of councillors in another part of the county, not in any way implicated in corrupt activities. This meeting was called in order to explore the kind of supports which the Church might offer them in their job. During the course of the day we had a remarkably frank discussion. My overwhelming impression from that meeting was of the high degree of frustration, insecurity, among honest men who were trying to do a good job but felt themselves distrusted by the public, often pilloried and misrepresented by the Press, and sometimes at variance with their own officers.

These are extreme examples and I am reporting feelings, not necessarily facts. I report them because I think they indicate the extent of the strains within local government in recent years as felt by some people, and therefore the urgent need to restore trust—trust within the structures of local government itself and trust by the public in the basic soundness and integrity of the system. I hope that this report, and our debate, will help to restore confidence in both these directions, first by making it clear that corruption can and will be dealt with, and secondly by reaffirming, as we have repeatedly done in this debate, the responsible and honourable role which the vast majority of our public servants fulfil.

I hope that we can help to restore this trust in a spirit of realism as well as a spirit of compassion. I stress realism. because part of the background of our debate is, as we have been told, a general disquiet about the weakening of moral standards in our society as a whole. Whether this is an actual weakening of moral standards as a whole, or whether it is a change in standards, I do not think any of us really knows. But it is obvious that the old kind of idealism, much of it religious in origin, which brought people into public service, is not as strong as it used to be.

Even more important than recognising the change which is taking place in the moral standards of our nation is, I believe, the need to be realistic about human self-interest. I do not believe that it is enough simply to commend, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has done, disinterestedness. Let me here confess to your Lordships that I believe in the doctrine of original sin, which I believe is ultimately an optimistic doctrine and not a cynical or pessimistic one about human nature. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, in dropping a remark about theologians and philosophers, put a severe temptation in my way to elaborate on the subject of sin, but she will be glad to hear that grace has prevailed and I will resist the temptation.

But whether or not your Lordships believe in original sin, I hope you will all accept that what all of us need to say in the face of actual cases of corruption is, "There, but for the grace of God, go I", because any analysis of human nature which is not hopelessly shallow has to acknowledge that people do what they do because they are looking for various kinds of satisfactions. These satisfactions may be of a very noble and honourable kind, but they are satisfactions nevertheless, and many of them are rooted in self-interest. If these satisfactions are not forthcoming then they will, in the end, look somewhere else for them. Because human beings, whether or not we like it, are like this, this kind of taint flaws even the best and highest motives.

It follows that ambitions which express themselves corruptly are often precisely those which grow out of the very same springs of human conduct which, in the first instance, have led people to offer themselves in public service. It is very often the highest parts of us and not the lowest parts of us which are the most easily corrupted. Therefore, when we look for corruption we do not have to look round for burglars wearing masks. We look at some of the finest impulses in human beings which, alas! can go so sadly astray. I believe that Mrs. Ward-Jackson in paragraph 9 of her addendum gets near to seeing this, and sees how easy it is to slide from justifying certain types of activity as being for the public good into justifying certain types of corruption as being very nearly for the public good.

The positive side of this realism about human nature I believe ought to be compassion, but it also has to be sensible safeguards. One such safeguard is to ask whether, in all respects, the present rewards of public life are sufficient. I am not now talking about those who already have many rewards in life; I am thinking primarily of those for whom perhaps the attainment of a place in local government is the summit of an ambition. I believe that we need to look compassionately, too, at the special strains on some of our public servants, particularly those who work in areas where social solidarity is an important fact of life.

This, I am sure, applies to many areas and many types of solidarity; whether it is the solidarity between miners or the solidarity between freemasons. The point is that within a particular social, political. or cultural grouping, people know and trust their own kind. We see the negative implications of this solidarity in its defensiveness; in the kind of evasions which it sets up; in the closing of the ranks; in nepotism; in strict Party or group discipline; and criticism of a closed group can easily he brushed aside as caused by malignancy or a sense of irresponsibility. This is the evil side of this solidarity.

We also need to recognise the enormous strength of the feelings which cause people to stick to their own. As I say, this runs right across class and cultural barriers; feelings of belonging to our own people without which our society would be much poorer and much less cohesive. This cohesiveness, as I have seen it in the area which I have the honour to serve, I have come to respect and value, even though sometimes—and I say this to my friends in the House who come from this area—I curse its limitations.

I could refer to many aspects of public life as I have seen it where deep compassion is needed, not least in respect of the enormous strains imposed on many councillors as a result of the recent local government reorganisation, and the strains which I suspect will be imposed by the Community Land Act, but I will end with three brief practical suggestions. The first concerns the recruitment of managerial expertise from industry into local government. I believe that many local authorities would be greatly strengthened if more of those with managerial expertise stood for election, and this entails a sympathetic attitude towards public service on the part of the industries concerned. I have in mind the difficulties caused by managerial mobility and the sort of limitations on promotion which anyone entering local government might be expected to suffer. A more positive attitude towards this by some industries would be a great help.

Secondly, I endorse Mrs. Ward Jackson's remarks about the need for training, remarks which were taken up by the noble Baroness, Lady Young; and here I would simply say that I have seen some of the good which can he done within a local authority by, in this instance, a fairly unskilled clergyman who took the trouble to learn a great deal about local government, who knows how to bring different people together and how to enable them to talk to one another, so to explore their problems and learn from one another. This man has in effect in his locality been running training programmes for councillors as well as acting as a mediator and interpreter at points of strain in the system. All the evidence I have had points to the conclusion that here is an immensely worthwhile job to be done. This is not a plea for a clergyman in every local authority. Heaven forbid! We do not have enough to go round as it is. It is, however, a pointer to the value of an un-committed person involved in the local government scene who has some basic training skills which he can bring to bear on the problems seen there.

Thirdly, I hope we can pass a message from this debate to the Press and media to lay off for a bit. I wonder how many Members of this House would like to see their expenses published as a kind of league table in their local Press at regular intervals? Yet this is the kind of burden which many local councillors have to suffer, and in my view it only goes to continue the atmosphere of cynicism, suspicion and mutual recrimination which many of us are longing to see put firmly into the past, and I hope that this debate will have helped that process.


My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate completes his attractive address, may I put to him a matter that is puzzling me? Why did he not think it necessary in the public interest to give evidence before the Royal Commission? I have looked through the appendices which contain a list of those who gave evidence, in writing or orally, and I do not find therein any Members of this House who sit on the Bishops' Benches who thought it necessary to give evidence. Can the right reverend Prelate help me as to why no evidence was given by him before the Royal Commission, as he comes from the area he represents and knows so much about and of which he has given us evidence this afternoon, and why none of his colleagues gave evidence?

The Lord Bishop of DURHAM

My Lords, in answering that question I can only plead original sin. Speaking for myself alone, this particular difficulty in the area which I serve was coming to the boil at about the time I was consecrated Bishop of Durham. It has taken me quite a long time to begin to discover what credence to give to various people who speak to me on the subject. I am sure the noble Lord will himself realise that a neophyte coming into this sort of situation goes public at his peril.

5.5. p.m.


My Lords, I begin by offering my warmest congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on an outstandingly wise and attractive maiden speech. I am sure we all hope that we may have the pleasure and privilege of hearing him often, because I have no doubt that he will be as great a tower of strength in this House as he was on the Royal Commission, on which I had the honour to serve with him. I am also happy to offer my warm congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, who I should disclose, is my stepson. I thought it was a very promising speech and a happy experience to hear him. I was very proud to do so. I trust that we shall hear him often, because it is a good thing to have young men—and to me he is a comparatively young man—contributing to our debates.

I do not believe that the chairman of a Royal Commission should come to this House to champion the recommendations set out in the Commission's report, still less to champion the recommendations in any note of dissent. I think the sole duty of the chairman on an occasion such as this is to clarify any obscurity, remove any misunderstanding and, if he can, correct any inaccuracy that has occurred during the debate. I shall detain your Lordships only briefly. One thing only seemed to me to be obscure, hut, alas! it is an obscurity about which I cannot help. How is it, if the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, took the view which he has expressed about the recommendation to remove the immunity which Members of Parliament now enjoy —the immunity from being prosecuted under the criminal law if they take bribes, and the immunity of the man who bribes them—that he signed the report and indeed, wrote a good deal of the chapter containing the recommendations? That is obscure to me unless he has perhaps changed his mind since he wrote it. I can well understand that anybody who describes the concept of equality of all before the law as being a naive concept should have expressed the view which he expressed this evening.

To my mind equality before the law is one of the pillars of freedom. To say that immunity from criminal proceedings against anyone who tries to bribe a Member of Parliament and any Member of Parliament who accepts the bribe, stems from the Bill of Rights is possibly a serious mistake. The passage in the Bill of Rights is: That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament. Now this is a charter for freedom of speech in the House. It is not a charter for corruption. To my mind, the Bill of Rights, for which no one has more respect than I have, has no more to do with the topic which we are discussing than the Merchandise Marks Act. The crime of corruption is complete when the bribe is offered or given or solicited and taken.

We have recommended that the Statutes relating to corruption should all be replaced by one comprehensive Statute which will sweep away the present anomalies. If you are not an agent—and Members of Parliament neither of this House nor of the other place are agents—if you are not the member of a public body (and we are not members of public bodies) the Statutes do not touch you. At Common Law you cannot be convicted of bribery and corruption unless you are the holder of an office, and most of us are not the holders of an office.

But the extraordinary position that we find ourselves in is that, if a Minister of a Crown, who of course would be a Member of Parliament, were to be bribed, both he and the man who had offered him a bribe would be liable to prosecution in the criminal courts. In the name of common sense, why on earth should this gap in the law not be filled? Why on earth should it be that you and I, my Lords, and the Members of the other place, and anyone who tries to bribe them or us, are completely immune from prosecution'? I hear a murmur of, "Not from punishment". A Member of the House of Commons can be brought before the Committee for Privileges and he can be expelled. Theoretically the man who offers him the bribe can be brought before the Committee for Privileges and he can be put in prison, and so can the Member. But since no one has ever been put in prison by the Committee for Privileges for contempt of Parliament for close on 100 years, it would be very ingenuous, I think, if we imagined that anyone was likely to be put in prison now.

Besides, as is pointed out in the report, the Committee for Privileges, much as I respect them, has not really got the machinery available for discovering this crime, if it exists. As the report points out, and gives instances, corruption is one of the most difficult crimes to unearth, and it needs the most experienced persons who are completely familar with the techniques of detection before you have a hope of detecting corruption. If anyone in the House is suspected of corruption, the police would not investigate the case, because their business in life is merely to investigate what may be a crime. So the Committee of Privileges is at a very grave disadvantage.

It seemed to us on the Royal Cornmission—and until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I thought that it seemed to every one of us on the Commission—that it stood out that if we were to strengthen the law against corruption throughout the land, then we should be reproached, and rightly reproached, if we did not deal with this immunity which now no longer has any raison d'être. If anyone is afraid that a criminal prosecution might be brought viciously or prejudicially, let me remind your Lordships that it cannot be brought without the fiat of the Attorney General. Of course I accept that fortunately there is a great tradition of integrity in both Houses, and it is exceedingly unlikely that any Member of Parliament would accept a bribe. But we all know that there have been very occasional cases in the past where bribes have been given and accepted, and we should have to be optimists indeed to think that this would never occur again. Surely if it did, this would be one of the most serious forms of corruption that there can be, because as several noble Lords have said, integrity and probity in public life is essential and if a rot sets in from the head it will quickly spread throughout the nation and threaten the whole system under which we live. I am convinced that if you were to ask 100 members of Parliament chosen at random whether they wanted the immunity retained they would all answer, no.

I was very sad to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said about how painful he had found the Commission, or his experiences on the Commission. He has reminded us that he was chairman of three commissions and a member of one, this one, and he had never been so sad as on this ocassion. It may well be that he would not have been so sad if he had been chairman of this one.


I would not, my Lords.


I found—and there are other members of the Royal Commission here who perhaps may agree with me—that we were very relaxed, and I like to think that during the year and a half the Commission lasted I met and kept, and will keep, many friends. It may be that there was a little friction between me —and I take all the blame for it—and one member of the Commission. But if a noble Lord thinks it right, in this House, to describe people who had the temerity to disagree with him as being "obviously populist and prejudiced", just imagine what was said within the walls of that Commission. My Lords, there is nothing else that I can think of in the nature of obscurity, misunderstanding or inaccuracy that I have heard this evening. Indeed, I have listened to all the speeches with great care and with great entertainment and pleasure—all except one.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I should perhaps disclose what some of your Lordships may regard as an interest. I, too, was a member of the Royal Commission whose report we are debating, and, furthermore, one of the four members who signed the controversial Note of Dissent on an issue that I, at any rate, regard as one of high moral significance. I cannot rival my noble friend Lord Houghton in eloquence or passion, but I trust that my modest contribution will be equally sincere though diametrically different.

There were three particular matters which surprised me—or, to be more frank, disturbed me—during our deliberations on this Commission. The first was that people who had given a lifetime to public service could be corrupted for such trivial sums or for such shabby social favours—frequently for the sort of money that can be raised by means of a local church or charity sponsored walk. These people accepted these sums—but the minority, and we must remember that—for what can only be described as a sponsored crawl. Second, that in this country we continue with a situation in which the bribery of a Member of Parliament acting in his Parliamentary capacity does not constitute an offence under the criminal law. The Commission unanimously—and I repeat, unanimously—recommends that Parliament should consider bringing corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of a Member of Parliament acting in his Parliamentary capacity within the ambit of the criminal law. Membership of Parliament is an honour bestowed by public confidence upon an individual. I cannot believe that the majority of Members of Parliament would wish this immunity to continue as a privilege in Parliament itself—the institution which surely sets the standards of British public life.

Third, I was disturbed by the attitude of the Inland Revenue Department to suspected or known bribery. It is to this third point that I seek to draw your Lordships' attention, though I realise it has been drawn to your Lordships' attention previously in this debate, but in a manner rather different. The facts are these. The creed of the Inland Revenue's operation is confidentiality, and rightly so. The role of the tax collector in history and in all countries is unpopular enough without him seeking to extend his role to being Big Brother's agent. That I accept and understand. The power that resides in the Inland Revenue is to collect the tax for which the Statute Law provides —no more and no less; and a great many of us think that that is enough. Now what is taxed, so far as businesses are concerned, is the profit: the excess of income over expenditure. The Tax Acts specify payments which are allowable. In practice and in principle, however, any monies laid out to earn profit can be claimed against the revenue of the business. The test—we all know this in our private tax affairs, and it is the same everywhere else—is: was this or that outgoing payment wholly and exclusively for the purposes of the trade, and did it or did it not come within a disallowed category?

My Lords, I believe that some of your Lordships were surprised to learn, as I certainly was, that a bribe from a contractor to a councillor or to an official of a council is not in the disallowed category. The Tax Acts, as the report points out, do not give the inspectors of the Inland Revenue any option in the matter. In England today, a bribe is an allowable business expense if it can be established that the money was paid over wholly and exclusively for the purposes of trade. Do not blame the tax inspectors; that is the practice, that is the principle, the tradition, odious as it is. Now what happens when such a payment or bribe, sometimes euphemistically called a "commission", is allowed as a legitimate business expense and is therefore tax-free? What happens after that event? The recipient is not quite so lucky. The Royal Commission points out that if, under the Tax Acts, the bribe can be deemed to be part of the recipient's income, the Inland Revenue will tax it because it is, under present legislation, no part of the Inland Revenue's duties to judge whether particular payments are corrupt. The briber gets away with it scot-free; the recipient is taxed. Both have no fear of prosecution because the Inland Revenue at present enters into a conspiracy to keep it dark. Nobody calls in the police when suspicions are aroused; nobody reports his suspicions to the Department of Public Prosecutions; the State cynically connives, I suggest, at a criminal act, keeps mum, and merely collects the tax.

My Lords, this was a matter of a great deal of anxious and, as your Lordships have heard today, vituperative discussion among the members of the Royal Commission. I must fairly record the majority view in the words of the Report. The majority view, in a condensed, but accurately condensed, sentence, was as follows: We are aware of the argument that our tax system encourages bribery to flourish. We do not believe this … The disallowance of bribes as tax-deductible expenses would not necessarily, of itself, lead to less bribery … The satisfactory working of our tax system depends to a high degree on taxpayers' trust and co-operation; this would be seriously damaged if the evaluation of non-revenue crime were to become in any way an integral part of the tax system itself. My Lords, I should say this also, that the then chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, now retired, Sir Norman Price, agreed with that view. I hope, however, that the opinion expressed by the four Commissioners who signed the Note of Dissent—the chairman, Lord Salmon; Miss Margaret Herbison, Sir Melvyn Rosser, a splendid Welsh accountant; and myself—will arouse a response in this House and in another place.

The general rule of confidentiality between citizen and tax inspector is already less than sacrosanct. It does not apply if the Board of Inland Revenue suspect murder or treason. The suspicion or information is passed on for investigation. Under the Finance Act 1972—and this brings us to present times—the Board of Inland Revenue is now obliged to pass on information concerning value added tax to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. Can it seriously be contended, at a time when most of us are deeply concerned about the decline in British moral standards, that the suspicion of unlawful evasion of VAT justifies a breach in the Board's rule of confidentiality whereas a suspicion of corruption does not and is, therefore, with the silent approval of the State, swept under the carpet? Such information is at present kept secret from the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The four members of the Commission that I have mentioned do not advocate that inspectors or collectors in the tax revenue department should personally investigate and personally establish evidence in such cases that will stand up in a court of law. They are not equipped to do so; that is the job of the police. We advocate that they should pass on their suspicions to their superiors, the Board of Inland Revenue, and that the Chairman of the Board, or his deputy, should decide whether or not, in the public interest, the suspicion or the information should be communicated to the DPP. That would end the present practice of officialdom conniving at corruption. I should add that the view that the Inland Revenue should pass on suspicions of serious corruption is a view with which the Director of Public Prosecutions agrees—and he told the Commission that he did so.


May I intervene to ask the noble Lord whether he would not agree that the Director of Public Prosecutions changed his mind during the course of giving evidence?


My Lords, I have quoted the final report which was approved by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others. The answer is, No.

My Lords, three of the dissentors, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, Miss Herbison and myself, go further and press for an amendment to the Income Tax Act. A key sentence in the Note of Dissent is this: The legislative measures by which we suggest the present practice should be changed will make it plain that information which the Inland Revenue may discover relating to serious corruption will no longer be treated as confidential but will fall into the category of information relating to murder, treason or evasion of value added tax: and accordingly no breach of confidentiality could arise. Our suggestion, briefly, is that part of the Income Tax Act which now says: … no sum shall he deducted in respect of… any disbursements or expenses not being money wholly and exclusively laid out or expended for the purposes of the trade … could be amended by adding the words "and honestly" after the word "exclusively". I hope that we will learn today from the spokesman on the Front Bench that the Government are already giving, or will give, consideration to the Note of Dissent in the report.

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, during the week in which this extremely interesting and important Report was published I happened to notice in the newspapers four separate, unconnected but disheartening little postscripts to the report's recommendations. Two senior policemen were suspended on suspicion of charges of corruption, thereby adding to an already worryingly long list; the chairman of a well-known public company was charged in court with 14 serious offences against the Companies Act; the former Lord Mayor of a large Northern city was charged with falsifying his expenses; and a lady—and this is a slightly more familiar case—was fined £25 for shoplifting in the West End. A sum of £300 was found in her bag at the time. On being convicted, she turned to the magistrate and said: "But we are all on the fiddle now, aren't we?". The magistrate wisely declined to answer this embarrassing question—and so, indeed, does the Royal Commission.

They do not go into this and they explained clearly why in paragraph 30 of their report which includes the words: We do not make recommendations about the private sector as such. But the ethics of society at large must have a bearing on the standards observed in the public sector. I should like that to have been more strongly expressed and I am sorry that their terms of reference did not give them the opportunity of taking it a bit further.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham both drew attention to one change recorded during the course of the whole report. That was the definition of "sin". I would not venture to follow them into that difficult territory. There is one other obvious casualty which stands out a mile from the various evidence given; and that is a change in the meaning of a "gentleman's agreement"—a very important thing in many of the subjects which were discussed by the Commission. A gentleman's agreement is now apparently an arrangement made by two parties—neither of whom could possibly be called a gentleman—each intending to involve the other without any obligations to himself.

In this egalitarian age, "Jack is as good as his master". Another important point that I have derived from the report is that, "Jack is also as bad as his master". The Commission mention this in paragraph 42 where they say: We have borne in mind throughout our work that one of the main safeguards against corruption in any institution is the standard set and required by the management from the top downwards. How can you blame the office boy for putting through private calls on the telephone or using the office franking machine for his own letters when his chairman is up on 14 charges against the Companies Act? How can you blame the dustmen for doing the terrible things they did in page 147 of the report when their Lord Mayor is up for fiddling his expenses? If a senior trades union were found to have rigged the voting and gerrymandered the ballot box, how can you blame some humble man on the shop floor for putting a few spare parts in his pocket or diverting a motor car from the assembly line into less orthodox channels?

I am glad that the Royal Commission draws so much attention to the question of the example of top management; but they did not go far enough to please me in saying where the really top management is. It is the Government—not this Government but any Government. Government is the top management. It is that source that we look to for the best example to be set. I would ask noble Lords to remember what President Truman said: "The buck stops here". Let us remember what Lord Acton said: All power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Many Government Departments, many local authorities, have almost absolute power. It behoves them to remember that and to use that power correctly. Governments must not bend the rules; Governments must not change the rules in the middle of the game; Governments must realise and must not be surprised that their standards are reflected all the way down the line. The standards of Downing Street are eventually the standards of Oxford Street. Your Lordships may cast your minds back to the case of Crichel Down—a considerable time ago. There were two outstanding features to my way of thinking in this sorry affair. The first was the impeccable behaviour of the Minister of Agriculture involved; the second was the dictum in the report written, I believe, by Sir Maurice Holmes, formerly Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, a dictum which should be written again in letters of gold above the desk of every civil servant. It said: The civil servant should always remember that the citizen has the right to expect that his affairs will not only be dealt with quickly and effectively, but also that his personal feelings as well as his rights will be sympathetically and fairly considered. In the presence of many distinguished civil servants in this House I would say, of course, that that is the majority view of all civil servants. It is only a majority; and alas! too many people still, I think with some reason, believe otherwise. If they are involved in a difference of opinion with a Government Department or the Inland Revenue or a local authority, they believe they will not yet get a fair crack of the whip, they will not be given, they feel. the benefit of the doubt. And what do they do? They say: "Well, two can play at that game. I will sail as close to the wind as possible if that is the way I am going to be treated." That is how we get so many of the troubles that we have seen set out in the report today. The report makes morbidly fascinating reading. One question which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, raised also struck me: I wondered whether I had ever been bribed. I did not only share her fear; it may be I am too naive to recognise a bribe when it comes my way. But my fear was worse: that I had never done anything important enough to make myself worth bribing.

My Lords, there are two matters which stand out particularly in this report. It contains many valuable guidelines, and I do not agree with all of it. The first is, as I have said, that Governments must not cheat, or they will influence all society for the bad. Governments must act swiftly, effectively, politely and un-vindictively. It is still true to say that honesty is the best policy; it will also make those who try to practise it agreeably conspicuous.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, the whole House enjoyed the previous robust speech and the thanks of the House are due to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for initiating the debate. There is one matter I want to affirm most strongly now, with experience on four local authorities, as Minister with the building and construction industry and with 25 years in the House of Commons, representing 60,000 constituents. I utterly reject the idea that any of these institutions are full of squalid people up to squalid misdemeanours all the time. They are not squalid people. In the main, the institutions that we have been discussing are composed of people who have maintained the civilisation of our country. The local authorities are the first defence of the poor, as the late Winifred Holtby said. The continual attacks and denigration on Parliament leads to the low public esteem. We reap the harvest that we sow. I am not going to say whether it is in the Daily Mirror, the Sun or anywhere else; but if anything breaks out and it leads to an attack on Parliament itself, a councillor or alderman, then that is front page news.

May I refer to something that took place last week; and that is why I took up with the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, the question as to whether this debate was concerned with only bribery, and with general standards rather than the word "corruption People do not always behave as they should. Last week a Member of this House, one who had been responsible for Government security, with a reputation in peace and war, was up before a court on a rather sordid charge. The magistrate acquitted him and then went on in a way which could never be appealed against to denigrate the man himself and to accept the evidence of a constable. It was perfectly possible that a man could be acquitted and the magistrate could have expressed his disquiet about the evidence, but to completely damn a considerable public figure was completely out of touch with everything that we do.

I do not think that people should abuse their office. The noble Lord, Lord Salmon, has spoken about privilege. What about that abuse of judicial privilege that we have here, and how often do we hear from the Judiciary a lot of nonsense, a lot of obiter dicta? I want to say to George Wigg (he will read this as he is not here now) that the older I get, the more I tend to despise the odd remarks or even the clamour of great public meetings. As I get older I like to think that I enjoy the increasing respect of a decreasing number of intelligent people. Those of us who have known George Wigg over all the years will feel a sense of sympathy with him that a man should be exposed to the ignorant interventions of a magistrate who has already acquitted him. He is now in a position where he cannot appeal against an acquittal, but the damage done to him—and here is part of the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Salmon—is something which will cloud the whole of a creditable life.

Regarding the Committee for Privileges, I can only tell the noble Lord, Lord Salmon (and, unfortunately, he has left his place), that he has never had the advantage of being a member of that Committee. He has never known how ruthless the inquiry is. The Committee is a high-powered body, containing usually 15 Members of Parliament including the Attorney General and the Leader of the Opposition. His reference to the power of the Committee of Privileges is not borne out by the facts. I doubt whether anybody who has been before the Committee of Privileges will write it down in the way it has been written down this afternoon.

The late Richard Crossman liked to think he was an historian. As an historian in the modern sense he was a journalist and he was always talking about the great peak from which Parliament descended. I used to ask when that was. He thought it was in the 1870s or 1880s. But if one took all the masters of the English language, Dickens, Hazlitt, Carlyle and Robert Louis Stevenson, they all denigrated Parliament. Parliament has always been the "Aunt Sally" of the academics. Dickens worked for 14 years in the Press Gallery. He referred to it as the great dust heap of Westminster. I can only say this, speaking in front of several noble and learned Lords, that which lawyers revere, historians despise. That was an opinion offered before a Select Committee in 1900 when the title of the Lord Great Chamberlain was in dispute.

The Commons is not a squalid place. No one who has been in the other House can fail to respect that Assembly or have a growing sense of affection of the Members of all Parties. After all, they have to go through far more than we do: they have to face the heat and burden of the day and the General Election denigration. It seems to me that the system of election is elevated, but the Members are despised. Most noble Lords here must have been present when the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who has just retired from the position of Chairman of Committees. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said this, at col.1447 of Hansard on 4th November: My Lords, the Office of Chairman of Committees is an ancient and honourable one and, as most things in this House, it has grown up by accident rather than design. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has had some distinguished predecessors with familiar names: Clarendon and Delaware, Waldegrave and Cathcart, Sandys, Saye and Sele, Warwick and Drogheda. One of his predecessors, Lord Willoughby of Parham, became the Chairman of Committees on the day he joined your Lordships' House, and received a Secret Service allowance of between £400 and £500 a year for doing the job. Your Lordships laughed. But that was commonplace in those days. My researches have largely been in the House of Commons. In 1826 the House stopped the Speaker selling the gold plate back to himself and reduced his salary. Members were born into the service of the House in the same way as they might be registered for Eton, Harrow or any of the great public schools. In effect, corruption was rife throughout the political system, and we must not just imagine that the system as we know it today is as it has always been.

Other people in more modern days have referred to this place with less respect. When Lord Asquith came here he was defeated at Paisley in 1924, and he took a very dim view of this place. Perhaps I might quote him: … I finished up with a Free Trade speech in the House of Lords—the worst audience in the world: great politeness (except when 'chuck it Smith' takes the floor) but no resilience or even response either from friends or foes. There is no debating, and I shall only go when I have something to say. …". That is not true today. We have listened to a very good debate, but it is very much a prepared debate. It does not have the cut and thrust of the House of Commons where you can be interrupted. I will quote again: … I was occupied yesterday with my Budget speech in the House of Lords, with which I was fairly well satisfied, but it is an impossible audience: as Lowe said fifty years ago, it is like speaking by torchlight to corpses in a charnel-house'. I would not express opinions of that sort myself because I have not been here long enough, but Members often get embroiled in controversy over the future of the House of Lords. I can only say regarding that that there is nothing you can do to it without strengthening it; and the great indictment against this Government is that, having failed to reform it, they abuse it; and that is quite ridiculous. I happen to believe that Members on both sides of your Lordships' House are entitled to a great deal of respect for their recent debates. It is part of the Constitution, and certainly the Labour Members here have been here and have only had to justify themselves by their presence, but not to take a view, except on the day of the debate. I join very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in what she said: no one who has been on local authorities can fail to respect the voluntary public service—and it still is voluntary public service that is given. When I consider my service on four local authorities, the financial burden of which is largely borne by my wife, I think it deserves a better response than it has got.

I represented Leeds and, of course, Poulson was a near neighbour. For a time I was Minister of Works, which was nearer to its industry than any other Ministry except Agriculture. We were responsible for the whole of the building and construction industry. It is well known now, because Mr. Crossman has told you so, that I was not in favour of building controls. That was because of the hard experience I had in the administration of building controls and licences in wartime and the stress that was put on all the members of the Department. I protested as strongly as I could—perhaps it was one of the reasons why I left the place—but I have always considered that some of the best minutes I have ever written on the subject were in connection with the dangers of building controls. Though the Prime Minister and the Government at the time had what I call a very one-eyed ideological swing about them, the fact was that after forcing through building controls, under my successor the legislation was never used at all. You would not believe that from reading Mr. Crossman, but it is a fact.

Therefore I have not taken this report too seriously. It seems to me to have dealt with the "small change" of local government and I have no doubt that if the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I were members of the same local authority we should come to the same conclusion at the end. The amount of paper work and the number of civil servants there would be needed to put this thing on to the Statute Book simply would not be worth while in any way at all. Nowadays we simply go round trying to winkle out the most stupid peripheral things. No wonder the Industrial population of this country has been steadily shrinking while the members of the Civil Service and the salariat have grown. Chuter Ede once said that there is far greater respect for the men who write about the wonderful things men do with their hands rather than for the men who do the job. I am a creature of the Industrial world. I do understand the history of industrial society, which has brought my own union, the AUEW, to many of their prejudices. Prejudices can be explained by history.

We have had a man called Poulson, a crook, who has come along. What was done was thrown up and discovered by an accident; but we really ought to consider how many Members of Parliament have gone wrong. Going back to within the lifetime of many Members of your Lordships' House, I can consider Horatio Bottomley, about 1922: he was a crook, anyway. Nothing about this question of privilege would have protected him. He served seven years in jail—and it was once said to him, when he was doing a bit of gardening in Maidstone Gaol, which I often used to visit: "Are you sowing?" and he said, "No; I'm reaping". I am sure that people can think of other cases, such as J. H. Thomas. I had to review his autobiography. Everybody knows now that he was a man who was badly dealt with and that he was not guilty of the things with which he was charged. I still correspond with his PPS—one of the great figures in public life—George Isaacs. He was sure that Thomas was not guilty. We also had the case of John Belcher and the Lynskey Tribunal—one of the successes of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Shawcross—

A noble Lord

Stonehouse was another one.


He was pretty grim. If you come down and say, "What about Stonehouse?" I can only tell you that his class master is a Member of this House, and he said to me: "Charlie, he always was one of nature's suspects". He was known for this. I had to go out and make an inquiry at the opening news campaign in 1958. He was a figure of suspicion and ought never to have been adopted, at all.

We ought to remember, when we consider privilege, that privilege is not something given to the Member—he is a vain ass if he thinks that. For 25 years I was responsible for the prejudices and difficulties of 60,000 people. It was only when I left Parliament that I realised the weight of the burden that had been on me. That is also true of other Members. You have an early morning phone call from someone asking about sympathetic leave. Everybody who comes to you thinks that their problem is the most important problem in the world. The basis of privilege is a claim on behalf of those 60,000 honest people. It has nothing to do with the Member himself. Privilege must be absolute privilege, utter privilege. You cannot have otherwise qualified privilege, because if that was so you would have a few Watergates in this country. So much is given to the Member in confidence. He would easily betray third parties if you brought them in.

But I might tell you that somebody going before the Committee for Privileges is destroyed utterly, because the idea of the camaraderie in the House of Commons is one of the most explosive things I have known and have always been very proud to associate with. I can only agree with my noble friend Lord Houghton that there is no country in the world which gives so little privilege to its Legislature.

I should like to finish on a story of my own. I was once on a Parliamentary delegation to the United States, and had lunch with one of its prominent legislators. In those days, we had the equivalent of £1,250 a year and we could see how well those in other countries were treated. But he asked me, "How much do they pay you?" and when I told him he said, "Yes, but how much do you make on the side?" It was a commonplace. It was something which was accepted.

You need only take your mind back to Hugh Dalton, who is supposed to have betrayed a trust. Everybody knows now that he should not have been subject to a Select Committee. He was probably overburdened at the time, and there was far more gossip in the newspapers than he ever let fly outside. But the penalties which fell upon an honourable man, with a lifelong career in public service, were of the same kind as those which fell upon George Wigg last week, for no other reason than that he had been a prominent Member of Parliament. They are always sorted out. We should always remember that politics is an honourable profession but, as my noble friend Lord Houghton said, it is a very risky profession. You have to bear the heat and burden of the day. You sometimes have to sacrifice your job or your pension to get in the House, but you can be turfed out at the next Election.

My mind goes back to an occasion when a chap named Simmonds came to the House and said that, because he had become Under-Secretary for Pensions, he had given up his own pension. He had lost a leg in the war, and he came down to the Box to declare his interest. He could not have imagined the response, because who leapt to his feet with that magnanimity?—Churchill. He said, "Don't give it up. You earned it. You lost your leg in the war. Don't trust these people." He may have behaved with magnanimity, but the electors of his constituency turned him out at the next Election because he was a teetotaller. Do not forget, my Lords, that you are in the firing line, though not so much as the people along the corridor who, after all, are on their way up, and we ought not to cause too many difficulties for them while we are on our way out.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords, some two years ago, when I was invited to join this Royal Commission, I accepted the duty because I had not had a similar invitation in 26 years of Parliamentary life, and I felt that any person from your Lordships' House who could try to help strengthen the legislation and the codes, so as to reduce corruption, would he doing something worth while. Of course, when they were trying to persuade me to take it on they said that it was just a matter of six months and we would he meeting roughly once a month. As your Lordships will have noticed, it took 18 months and for much of the time we met very nearly every week. But the extra time allowed me the privilege, which I appreciated, of getting to know my colleagues, five of whom have already spoken before me in this debate, and I had the joy of sitting next to Sir Philip Allen, as he then was, who brought to our deliberations all the wisdom of a Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, and a very clear and civilised mind.

I think that every one of your Lordships will have appreciated the outstanding maiden speech which we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, this afternoon, and I should also like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Morris. I could not help feeling that, as a chartered accountant, he would be even more welcome on the Expenditure Committee of the House of Commons, where they are very short of anyone with expert knowledge in controlling the finances of our country, or perhaps even in the Treasury where he could give aid and succour to the present Chancellor.

No one has acknowledged—and I am sure it would have been the wish of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, that one of us did—the outstanding work which members of Royal Commissions receive from dedicated civil servants who service those Commissions. We had three outstanding people, and I do not believe that our deliberations and our prose would have read one quarter as well if it had not been for their dedication and selflessness over a long period.

We have to ask why is corruption becoming rife, and whether it is, in fact, expanding. I cannot help feeling—and the previous speaker touched on this point —that as we expand responsibilities, as we expand detailed control over many sides of our public life, as the public sector expands, as nationalisation expands, as we have government in all its facets which is now taking 60 per cent. of our gross national product, we may be running into an era of corruption, probably to a minor extent. Nor should we forget the fact that no other nation has found it wise to tax its citizens at the rate of 83 per cent. of their earnings at high levels, or, if they have been unwise enough, or if their parents have been unwise enough, to make savings in their lifetime at 98 per cent. These rates give a very big incentive to those who make money by lawlessness, or perhaps even by corruption, which moneys are not so taxed.

We have to acknowledge the fact that if people believe that there is widespread corruption—because the media very much live on the sensational stories and they affect their circulation and, no doubt, the audience figures on television—they will be getting a false picture, because after these 18 months' deliberations I think that most of my colleagues and I came away with the feeling that, although corruption might be serious and we must do everything in our way to stem the flow, 99 per cent. of the people who served those public bodies were outstandingly honest and law abiding.

As other noble Lords have said, it was a strange thing that the Poulson empire, with all its ramifications, and its network, should have existed for over a decade before it was uncovered, and then only by an accident of bankruptcy. Even then, I doubt whether its full stature would have been recognised if it had not been for the fact that Mr. Poulson had this strange habit of filing every single letter, and every single piece of paper, that he dealt with during his career. It is right to say, too, because it has not been brought out, that some 300 other people were being considered to be charged, and I am glad that now that the top people have been sentenced it has not been thought worth while to proceed. But I hope that by putting into effect some of these recommendations we may improve things in the future.

The noble and learned Lord. Lord Salmon, talked about equality under the law, and this is the only main point that I want to make in this debate. He quite rightly said—we put it in our report, and the noble Lord, Lord Cudlipp, made the point again—that we should hope that the House of Commons would wish so to change its procedures that MPs would not get any privilege which was not available to other citizens whom they were serving.

We also have to remember that MPs are encouraged not to depend entirely on their Parliamentary salaries. In fact, quite rightly, in our country we still believe that they should have some knowledge of the working world, and of how citizens make their living and conduct their business, and that without this knowledge which they bring to the debates—and perhaps your Lordships' House is the best example of this, because most of us have other functions than attending this House to perform—the House of Commons would be a poorer place. So they are paid accordingly and £6,000 a year, even though some of it is untaxed, is not a princely salary for all the obligations, for all the hard work, for the turmoil and for the disorganisation of one's family life which has to be undertaken by any Member of Parliament.

When we look at their functions or their careers—the list is in the The Times House of Commons book which I have just been studying—we find that barristers and solicitors are the biggest professional intake (there are some 84 in the present House of Commons) while teachers and lecturers come next. Certainly teachers cannot follow their profession when they arrive as Members of Parliament. Advertisers are high on the list, and also journalists. There are 51 journalists. which is a surprisingly high number. They, equally, have opportunities to adjust their writing hours to the House of Commons and to service in Parliament. The trade unions play a big part, and also consultants. It is sad that so very few Members of Parliament are able to follow an industrial, wealth-creating profession at the same time as serving in Parliament. The large majority of Members serving in the House of Commons have to find some other occupation. It is easy to condemn a bribe, but I do not believe that we have paid enough attention to the difference between a fee for services rendered and a bribe, or a fee as an agent of a company. Some 15 years ago—this was brought home to me very vividly—when a well-known electronic company won an export order for transistors to be supplied to Moscow they were told that they must channel all their business through a certain Member of Parliament.

I am told, and I have had it confirmed since, that that particular Member of Parliament earned £30,000 in one year in that capacity. Well, he was performing a service. But surely the House of Commons and Parliament in general would be wrong to hare after a Member of Parliament who earns £500 a year and totally forget somebody who is earning £30,000 in this capacity.

I hope that when the Government consider this report and come to reply we shall find that the House of Commons is the right place to sort this out. We were right to mark out the course but not to give a detailed solution because the House of Commons, particularly at this time, would resent a Royal Commission, with many Peers sitting on it, dictating how they should conduct their affairs, and especially checks on the integrity of their Members. I believe equally that we should send the message that we are representaive of the country in general when we ask the Government to act now with a sense not only of care hut also of speed.

6.12 p.m.

The Earl of NORTHESK

My Lords, it is a tradition in your Lordships' House to congratulate noble Lords after they have made their maiden speech. I know that after I had made mine and had spoken for the first time noble Lords were very kind, which in my case was most helpful. But, on this occasion, although I hope that kindness is accepted, it is neither that nor tradition which chiefly moves me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, and the noble Lord, Lord Morris. It is admiration for two truly excellent speeches and I sincerely hope that I shall have the pleasure of hearing both of them again on many occasions.

I am most grateful for the opportunity of making some brief comments on the subject of conduct in public life because, as one noble Lord has already suggested—and I apologise for forgetting exactly who he was—it would be acceptable to approach this subject from a different point of view, which, if I may, I will attempt to do, and because, like others who have added their own further views on the report, I also do not believe that any inquiry into the conduct of those in public life can be complete without taking into consideration the conduct of those in commercial and industrial life. But I go further than that. Although I admit that it would be an almost impossible subject upon which to compose a report, may I suggest that individual conduct and behaviour have also to be considered. For even if one admits that a person who enters public life—and in these days that represents a very large number of people indeed—should lead as unblemished a life as possible, is it right and possible in this day and age to try to impose moral codes only on those people who, for one reason or another, are serving the public and not on the general public themselves?

I cannot conceive, therefore, that it is equitable to consider and discuss the conduct of only those people who are in public life. I find it impossible to draw a line between those people and the general public—of which, of course, they are a part. In any case, I am not convinced that to legislate for public morals in this context is right—or, should I say, would do any good. In my view it is far more important to attempt to understand, not only as a nation but as individuals, why, if it is accepted as true, conduct and behaviour has deteriorated or is deterirating. If it is, it seems that a manifestation of the deterioration could be the ever-increasing number of laws and regulations which exist today, which I believe is partly to blame for the frustration over ever-decreasing individual freedom.

Often I ask myself why all these regulations are necessary: whether, in fact, our conduct and behaviour are deteriorating to such an extent that regulations are required, so to speak, to protect ourselves from ourselves or whether, in some cases, they are imposed upon us by influences outside our control—and by that I mean literally outside our control—as well as by influences which emanate from outside this country. But whatever the case, it could be said that a deterioration of conduct is shown by the fact that almost every day we break some of these laws and regulations in one way or another, sometimes both consciously and unconciously—as, for instance, when we break a traffic regulation—but often, I suspect, quite blatantly: as for instance, when an expense account does not altogether agree with the figures which are presented to the Inland Revenue.

However, that is only one side of the picture, and I mention it perhaps as an excuse in order to suggest that we are overgoverned and overregulated. For instance, I know of an old people's club which now has considerable difficulty in holding its weekly session of old time dancing, because the regulations state that it has to have a comprehensive insurance, which it can ill afford; that it has to have a licence before people can drink a glass of beer and that it has to have another licence in order to play music—all of which, these days, takes considerable time, trouble and expense. Another regulation states that I must not let my cattle drink in the waterways that are controlled by a water authority. I have never understood whether this is to protect my cattle from being poisoned or whether it is to protect the river from my cattle, but it seems completely to disregard the fact that my cattle can do what they like in the tributaries and ditches which are not directly under the water authority's control.

It is some of these petty regulations, which appear to have little reason and which are sometimes ineffective, in any case, that give rise to tremendous frustration and aggravation and a feeling of great antipathy to law and order. Whether it is right or wrong to do so, it appears that to "fiddle" has become an accepted game and, in some cases, there is some justification in doing so in order to overcome the too many regulations and to reach for freedom. Such an attitude can only give rise to a breaking of the set standards of conduct.

It would seem that there are many other ways of suggesting that our conduct and behaviour are not all that they should be, and unfortunately the news media are never reluctant to emphasise this, but I wonder whether overall and in all walks of life they really are deteriorating? I wonder whether, if it were possible to measure it in some way, the weight of bad conduct per human being is proportionally greater than it was 500 or even 100 years ago? If there is a problem is it not more to do with our beliefs and endeavours, not only as a nation but as individuals?

I think it is true to say that our values have changed, such as the belief that happiness or contentment or an ambition can be achieved only by material gain and not by personal evolution. I think this gives rise to a certain lack of consideration for others and to thoughtlessness at one end of the scale, and to greed and covetousness at the other end of the scale, which leads to bad manners and eventually to corruption. Not so long ago it was even stated in your Lordships' House that money will buy anything and everything. Such a statement, even if untrue, is in my view appalling; but if that really is the value by which we, as a nation or as individuals, live, then I think we deserve the increased corruption and violence that we are told exist today.

As I have said, I do not entirely believe that to legislate for conduct and behaviour is ever completely successful, even though in this day and age it appears to be necessary. In a naive way, I have suggested that the manifestation of our conduct is demonstrated by our laws and by the way we react to them, and of course by the way we allow ourselves to be governed. In an equally naive way, I should like to state what I believe to be wrong and how it could be put right. A wise man—or perhaps I should say a man I consider to be very wise and who in the context of the conversation was referring to Communism, although the same could be said about any tyrannical or dictatorial regime—said, "It always creeps in through the back door and thrives on material and spiritual bankruptcy". As an idea I believe that to be substantially true, although I doubt whether it is really true to say that we are materially bankrupt. Far be it from me to discuss the economic situation, but as regards material potential I should have thought that we still possess tremendous wealth. In my line of business—namely, agriculture—I know that to be true.

However, more important is the potential of the British people. An example of that must be the amazing collection of people who were gathered together by a national newspaper for their "Sportsman of the Year" award. I believe no one who saw or read about that event could help but be moved by their efforts and endeavours; and there are, of course, other remarkable individual achievements in other walks of life. Unfortunately, they are comparatively few. Nor do I believe that as a nation we are spiritually bankrupt—at least not yet—but I believe that with a few exceptions our potential and our abilities, our material and spiritual endeavours, are repressed and have gone to sleep. I think that is emphatically shown by our manner of conduct and our lack of initiative and innovation.

So I believe it is the individual who counts. It is the individual and collective influence of those people who believe in good values that is necessary, and following on that the example and demonstration of good behaviour and conduct which is required. Ideally and hopefully, it should be the example of everyone, not only our leaders and so-called leaders—and particularly those who control our Press and entertainment—but everyone who lives in a community. That, of course, is everyone who of necessity, whether or not it is realised, by his behaviour has the ability to influence others. For instance, a couple of rotten apples in an apple store will destroy all the apples in time; in the same way, envy, greed and dishonesty in the community only produce more of the same. They are catching, but equally infectious are the better values of life. If by example more people could be affected by right and proper conduct, I would go so far as to suggest that many of the petty laws and regulations that we have would become unnecessary and such a report as we are discussing today might not be needed.

Again, it is probably too naive to suggest that such a state of affairs could ever completely exist, but I believe that a tremendous improvement in the standard of conduct and an increase in the vitality of this nation could be effected if such ideas were put into practice by more people. The difference between the total weight of good conduct and the total weight of bad conduct is very finely balanced. It might take only a very little to tip the scales in a better direction. Such an idea is completely practical for every individual.

I humbly beg forgiveness if it is the opinion of your Lordships' House that I have been straying too far from the point or that I have taken it upon myself to moralise too much. However, it seems to me that this kind of thing should be voiced emphatically at this time for spiritual and material bankruptcy may not be that far away. Neither may be totalitarianism and, therefore, also our ability to conduct ourselves other than in a dictated and prescribed manner. I can only wish that it could be said by people who can express themselves better than I can and by people who command a great deal more respect than I do, and also by people who are given the opportunity to be listened to and who are in a position to influence this country.

6.29 p.m.


My Lords, this debate has been wide-ranging. We have just heard an interesting speech from the noble Earl of about a quarter of an hour's duration and I do not think he referred to the contents of the report which we are considering more than once. We had a speech from the noble Lord, Lord Pannell, which was enjoyable, with his reminiscences of his life in another place, and we had the debate opened, if I may say so, with an admirable speech from the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. It was absolutely and entirely uncontroversial and I think would serve anyone as a perfect model for a maiden speech.

I have not spoken in the House for a long time and I almost begin to feel that this is rather like a maiden speech on my part. Then we had the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who, in the course of her remarks, made some animadversions about sin, which drew the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham to speak as an expert on original sin. It was not until we got to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that any heat was engendered into the debate.

My Lords, I do not want to be unduly controversial. Sometimes I can refrain from controversy. But to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, whom I have known for a great many years, with whom I have debated on many occasions, and of whom I have said from time to time as hard things as he has said of me, I want to say that I was sorry that he made a scarcely veiled attack on the chairman of the Royal Commission on which he served. I was sorry, because I do not think it served the slightest useful purpose. Of course there are occasions when people disagree, people like my noble and learned friend Lord Salmon and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who hold views very strongly. But I do not think it is necessary to pursue the matter into such a debate as this, and I am sorry that it happened.

I put down my name to speak in this debate for a number of reasons. One reason is that for a number of years I had the responsibility—as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has—of giving consent to prosecutions for corruption. In my day, I dealt with very few applications. Part of the reason for that may have been because of the difficulty of securing evidence. That difficulty still exists and, despite this report, in my belief it will continue to exist. It may be that there was more corruption in those years than one thought, but I do not believe there really was a great deal of corruption then. We have had references to Poulson. That is by chance, because of the bankruptcy, and because of Poulson keeping all the documents, which exposed that field of corruption. Quite naturally that aroused very great anxiety.

If I may state a personal belief, I do not believe that there is a great deal of corruption in this country. There is always some. The more it can be stopped and checked, the better, but we are not a corrupt society. if I may make one criticism, with great respect, of the report of my noble and learned friend and the members who signed it, I feel that there was somewhat of an over-reaction on account of the Poulson Inquiry. I feel there is too much required to be done, and it is likely to produce very little.

My Lords, there are two particular subjects on which I want to make some observations. The first is as to the possibility or desirability of the Inland Revenue being required to disclose information given to them in the strictest confidence if they think it may indicate that there has been any corruption. From this report, we see that there were two possible cases where the Inland Revenue could have done that. Personally, I do not believe it is right or proper to depart from that long-standing rule because of the desirability of catching perhaps one, perhaps two, perhaps half-a-dozen more people for corruption, and prosecuting them. I do not think it is worth doing. To my mind, those who suggest that it should be done are over-reacting to the situation. Having said something critical of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I join with him, although without the heat with which he expressed it, in hoping that the Inland Revenue will not be required to divulge that which is told to them in the strictest confidence.

Now may I touch on another and more controversial subject: that is, the position of Members of Parliament. It is perhaps the popular thing to talk about equality before the law. A strong case can be made for saying that everyone should be amenable to the criminal law. But as I read this report, that was not recommended by the Royal Commission. In paragraph 311, the Royal Commission said: … we recommend that Parliament should consider bringing corruption, bribery, and attempted bribery of a Member of Parliament acting in his Parliamentary capacity within the ambit of the criminal law. I support that, and I hope that that will be considered. But if I express a personal opinion now, I must say I am very doubtful indeed of the wisdom of bringing that within the ambit of the ordinary criminal law.

That Members of Parliament who take or give bribes with regard to their Parliamentary functions should be liable to punishment is something, I am sure, with which everyone will agree. But in the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Pannell, and as. indeed, in my own experience, one has seen instances of extremely heavy punishment, some say too heavy, being meted out to Members of Parliament who have not behaved as they should. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, said that they could not be sent to prison by the Committee for Privileges. It is within the power of the House of Commons to do that. I remember an occasion when I was a Law Officer sitting on the Front Bench with a Motion in my hand, ready to move for the committal of an individual to custody. He apologised for his contempt and withdrew, so I did not move the Motion. But the power is there. The sanctions in relation to Members of Parliament for conduct in the House of Commons are really far greater than the sanctions that can be imposed by the courts.

My present view is that although I may feel in favour of the House of Commons—and this House because the same problem occurs in both Houses, although perhaps it is far less likely that anyone will think it worth while attempting to bribe any Member on either side of this House, or on the Bishops' Bench or on the Cross-Benches-pursuing a particular course of conduct, the problem is a problem for both Houses. I should like to see a Joint Committee considering this. The Committee set up by the other place has not had this within its terms of reference. It is something which should be looked at, and looked at carefully. Parliament has always been reluctant to let the courts inquire into proceedings in Parliament. Parliament has exercised control over those. I must say that if you make Members of Parliament amenable to the ordinary criminal law in relation to prosecutions for bribery, it will not be long before evidence will be given in a magistrates' court at Bow Street, if there were a prosecution, as to what happened within the House itself.

So far as Members of Parliament are concerned, one could leave the law as it is. I would assure my noble and learned friend that the Committee for Privileges, on which I have also for some time had to sit, has very extensive powers indeed for summoning any person before them, and requiring the production of any papers. A person who is summoned before the Committee for Privileges is not told that he need not answer any questions put to him; he is required to answer such questions as are put to him.

While that is all right in regard to Members of Parliament, there is a problem in regard to those outside persons who seek to bribe them. I think myself that they also are amenable to the jurisdiction of the Houses of Parliament, each separate House. But I think that that may want looking into. So I would say to my noble and learned friend Lord Salmon that it is not a question of immunity of Members of Parliament who are proved to have taken bribes; it is merely a question by which procedure they should be dealt with, by procedure before the ordinary courts of the land or by procedure in the High Court of Parliament. I am inclined to think that it should be the latter, but I completely support the recommendation of the Royal Commission that this should be a matter considered by Parliament. That is all I want to say on this matter. It has been a very interesting debate, and I hope that I have not prolonged it unduly or indeed added any heat to it.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, I think we can certainly all say that we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for having enabled us this afternoon and this evening to debate the Report of the Royal Commission, which was published just before the Summer Recess. From the Government's point of view, it has been most valuable to have this early opportunity of hearing your Lordships' comments on a report of such importance. I think it has been an outstandingly good debate, if I may say so. I noted that my noble friend Lord Pannell referred to some observations made by a former Lord Asquith to the effect that the House of Lords was the worst audience in the world. I am bound to say that, though my experience is rather more limited than Lord Asquith's, I find that a rather surprising observation, because I have met many far more formidably difficult audiences than this one, and I suspect that that is the experience of virtually everybody here present today. I think it has been a particularly good debate. Just as it is sometimes unreasonable and unfair to denigrate another place —and sometimes allegations are made which are not substantiated—it is sometimes a little too fashionable to denigrate this House as well.

My Lords, the Royal Commission's Report is a document that deserves the attention it has received today, and on behalf of the Government, and indeed, I am sure, of the whole House, I should like to express our gratitude to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, and to his colleagues on the Commission for the work they have done on what has been clearly a most difficult subject. We are further indebted to the six members of the Commission who have contributed to the debate this afternoon: the noble and learned Lord himself, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby, the noble Lord, Lord Cudlipp, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who chose this debate as the occasion for his maiden speech, as did the noble Lord, Lord Morris. We should all, I am sure, wish to congratulate them warmly on their speeches.

If I may say so to my noble friend (for the purposes of this debate) Lord Allen, like the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, I spent a fair amount of time at the Home Office, though in a different capacity from the one I have at the moment, when the noble Lord was the Permanent Under-Secretary. Therefore, it is with particular pleasure that I speak in this debate on the occasion of his maiden speech. There are many former Permanent Secretaries in your Lordships' House, many who have been Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, Heads of the Civil Service, Permanent Secretaries to the Treasury. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, is in fact the first Permanent Secretary at the Home Office who has been in your Lordships' House since Sir John Anderson (as he then was), Lord Waverley, arrived here a quarter of a century ago. It is, therefore, particularly noteworthy that we have heard today a speech of such excellence as the one which the noble Lord delivered. It was an outstanding speech, and I am sure he must have been a most valuable member of the Royal Commission in what must have been a series of rather difficult meetings. That became clear during some of the discussions we had here this afternoon.

My Lords, the issue before us today has recently received a great deal of attention. There has been a great deal of space in the Press taken up with reports of conduct falling far below the standards which people in this country have come to expect from those who administer their affairs. Speculation has certainly flourished about the possibility of undisclosed corruption elsewhere. I think we must accept that confidence in the integrity of those who hold public office has to some extent been shaken. We in this country have for many years enjoyed the benefit of high standards of probity among those in public life; the exceptions, though notorious, have been few. I think we have had some cause to feel proud of our traditions. But over the last two or three years the bankruptcy of Mr. Poulson has brought in its train the gradual disclosure of a conspiracy of corruption which has rightly shocked the country. The trials of Mr. Poulson and his associates revealed a network of illicit payments, favours and underhand dealings on a scale which few of us would have thought credible a few years ago.

Nevertheless, we must retain a sense of proportion, as the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, has just said, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said earlier in this debate. The unpleasant revelations that have come out of the Poulson affair do not justify some of the wilder assertions that have been made. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said at the beginning of the debate, many countries would he very content if they could have in their countries the standards of probity that exist in this, notwithstanding the problems we have seen in recent years. The vast majority of those who now serve in public life maintain the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Like the noble Baroness, I spent a certain amount of time in local government, and I never heard allegations of this sort, nor did I believe that there was a significant degree of corruption in the local government of the area which I represented.

On one point I would certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Pannell. I think we spend a little too much time on what might he described as the ideological aspects of this problem. When I mention this, I turn to the speech of the noble Baroness. She believed that the problems which have arisen are largely because of the extension of the powers of the State, or at least that is a significant factor. But, of course, if one looks at the level of corruption we experienced in this country in the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, it is very hard to believe that that is true. There was widespread corruption in Members of both Houses of Parliament; the Press were largely organs of Ministers or powerful figures in the Opposition, and editors received bribes on a regular basis. That is an indication of our need to maintain a sense of balance when we discuss the character of the problem which we are facing in this country at the present time.

Nevertheless, recent events have shown that there can be no room for complacency, and I can assure the House that the Government share the general anxiety that measures should be taken to strengthen our defences against the menace of corruption, whatever form it may take. It was because of' this anxiety that the Government decided to appoint the Royal Commission in 1974. As soon as the Royal Commission's Report was available, in July, the Government put in hand its own study of the recommendations it contained, and I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Allen, that Departments are now consulting the local authority associations, the nationalised industries and various other bodies about the recommendations which specifically concern them. But the views and comments we want to hear on the Commission's recommendations are not just those of organisations with a special interest in the subject matter. We want also to know the views of Parliament and of the public.

The great value of our debate today has been to indicate the reaction of Members of this House at a stage when it can have a formative influence on the Government's thinking. Accordingly, the House will not expect me this evening to announce on behalf of the Government any conclusions, however provisional, on the recommendations which the Royal Commission have put forward. I certainly have listened carefully to what noble Lords have said, and I can assure them that their views will be taken fully into account in the Government's further examination of the Royal Commission's Report.

Inevitably there has been some impatience and anxiety for speedy action. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in opening the debate said that he hoped that if the Government did not declare their hand today they would do so as soon as possible. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said that he too wanted some urgent action. But the noble Lord indicated in his speech the character of the problem, as have a number of other speeches, and not least the speech just delivered by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne. These are difficult matters, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, recognised when he said that it was necessary to maintain this difficult balance between the need to protect civil liberties and the need to take firm action against impropriety. That is indeed the central dilemma on many of the issues which we have been discussing today, and they will therefore require great care and attention when legislative proposals are being formulated.

This brings me to the point the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, made at the beginning of the debate when he suggested that consolidation and amendment of the Prevention of Corruption Acts could be undertaken by the Law Commission or by the Criminal Law Revision Committee. The Royal Commission, as the noble Lord will be aware, themselves considered at some length in Chapter 4 of their Report what substantive amendments of the existing law were needed, and made some fairly specific proposals which are set out in Recommendation 2 on page 101 of the Report. I think it is doubtful whether the work that remains to be done in elaborating the details of these proposals is substantial enough to justify referring it to the Law Commission or to the Criminal Law Revision Committee. The kind of work that either of these bodies normally do when reviewing a particular branch of the law has, in this instance, apart from the actual drafting of the Bill, already been done.

The noble Lord referred to the likely difficulty of finding time for the necessary legislation. This of course inevitably will be a problem when the time for that arises, but this difficulty would remain even if the Law Commission or the Criminal Law Revision Committee had been involved in preparing it. As the debate has indicated, there has been substantial concern over a very wide area, and clearly legislation of this type will quite properly take up a formidable amount of Parliamentary time.

For the present, I hope that the House will be content if I offer some observations on one or two general themes which arise from the report, and indeed from today's debate. The first of these themes concerns the proper role and extent of the criminal law in this field. The Royal Commission have recommended that the Prevention of Corruption Acts in their application to the public sector should be amended and consolidated. They set out, as I just pointed out, in Recommendation 2, the requirements which they think the new law should meet.

The sort of question which we need to bear in mind—and I know that the Royal Commission had it very much in mind—is: How far should the scope of legal sanctions extend, and what kinds of behaviour can more appropriately be governed by other sanctions, either specifically, such as disciplinary measures, or less specific, but in some cases equally effective, such as the pressure of adverse public opinion? Or, to put the question in another way, what kinds of socially reprehensible behaviour are so objectionable that we feel the law must be brought into play because no other sanctions are adequate? A variety of factors may influence the answer to this question and, indeed, there can be no simple or indeed straightforward answer. There is bound to be a grey area of antisocial behaviour about which opinion is divided.

There is another question which the Royal Commission raised. This related to the ambit of the criminal law in its application to the bribery, or attempted bribery, of a Member of Parliament in respect of his Parliamentary duties. Virtually all the members of the Royal Commission who have spoken in this debate have alluded to this, as has the noble and learned Viscount who has just finished speaking. This is a matter to which public attention has particularly been directed since the Commission's Report was published, and noble Lords will have noted the decision of another place to set up a Select Committee on the Conduct of Members which is inquiring into allegations made against Members acting in their Parliamentary capacity in connection with Mr. Poulson's affairs. That deals with the point raised by the noble and learned Viscount. It in fact deals with that limited area.


My Lords, that is what I thought. It deals only with that limited area and not considering the wider field which has been raised by the report of the Commission.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount has put the matter quite accurately. The Royal Commission's recommendation—and this is the point on which the noble and learned Viscount anticipated me—raises the far more general issue of principle which calls for careful consideration and in which we recognise that this House, like another place, has a clear interest.

The second general point is, in a way, a different aspect of the first, since it again concerns the scope of the law. To what extent should legal provisions relating to corruption differentiate between the public and private sectors? I am bound to say that I am surprised that there has not been quite so much discussion of this point. It was brought out clearly in the Report of the Royal Commission. It was touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, and by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, but not by many others. All I would say in passing on this matter is that, again, I think this indicates that when one talks about the extension of the powers of the State, it is an over-simplistic way of dealing with this particular problem. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Thorneycroft, has joined us, because I am struck by the number of quite prominent business leaders who have, over the last few years, told me of their anxiety in this particular field. I think it is a matter which the Royal Commission touched on quite obviously because it was not directly within their terms of reference, but I think it is a matter which the Government will have to look at as part of their review of the law in this matter.

I accept of course that it is suggested, and I think suggested rightly, that there is a greater need for those in public life to retain an unblemished reputation for fairness and impartiality, and that just as the public has a right to expect a higher standard of probity from them, so they should be subject to greater penalties in case of a breach of the law. But on the other hand it can be argued, and I think rightly, that corruption is unacceptable wherever it takes place, and must be dealt with severely and without any form of distinction. There are some fields—for example air transport—in which both public and private concerns operate, and it might seem invidious to apply one set of laws to one category and quite a different set of laws to the other. As I pointed out, the Royal Corn mission were, of course, charged under their terms of reference with looking only at the public sector. But they took the opportunity, when putting forward their recommendations, as again I pointed out, to invite the Government to consider how far their proposals for the revision of the corruption laws might also be applied to the private sector.

Not all the recommendations would need to be applied without distinction. It would be possible to adopt an approach which was to some extent selective. The Government believe that the question of parity or otherwise between the public and private sectors is something on which a wide range of individuals and organisations will have views, and we propose to consult quite widely before reaching any firm conclusions.

A third general point concerns the balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of society, a question with which this House is constantly grappling in a variety of contexts. In a number of passages in their report, the Royal Commission raise the question whether it would be right for an agency of Government which, in the course of its duties, had acquired information which led it to suspect an instance of corruption, to pass that information on to another agency for investigation. The dilemma is illustrated in a particularly acute form where the Commission considered whether the Inland Revenue should take the initiative in informing the Director of Public Prosecutions where their investigation of tax matters suggests that corrupt payments have been made.

As your Lordships will know—noble Lords who did not know will now be aware of it—there was a substantial difference of opinion on this matter among the members of the Royal Commission, and that has been reflected in this debate. Against disclosure was the majority of the Commission and my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby. On the other side, the minority had the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, and my noble friend Lord Cudlipp. There has been—and I choose fairly neutral language—vigorous disagreement on this matter, and it would be a foolish Minister who declared himself unequivocally on one side or the other on it, all the more so because there has been no final collective decision on the matter by Ministers. Nevertheless, it is an important issue; my noble friend Lord Cudlipp asked for an assurance that the matter would receive close attention and I can certainly give him that undertaking.

All the members of the Commission agreed that, subject to certain safeguards, the Director of Public Prosecutions should have the power to apply to the High Court for authority to inspect a person's financial records wherever other sources had given reasonable grounds for believing that there had been a corrupt act. This would affect not only the Inland Revenue but a number of other official agencies, as well as records kept by banks, accountants and so on. Even this more limited step would raise some problems of privacy and confidentiality, but the Commission have given in their report strong arguments for such a reform and have suggested safeguards designed to ensure that it would be used only in strictly defined circumstances. The Government believe that these recommendations merit very serious consideration.

Before leaving the question of confidentiality, perhaps I might refer to another recommendation which appears much later in the report and which raises similar problems. The Royal Commission recommended that the Parliamentary Commissioners should be given the power to pass to the police any information about possible corruption which might come into their hands in the course of their investigations. Legislation would be required to implement this recommendation because the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration Act 1967 provides a general obligation of confidentiality and. with certain limited exceptions, prevents the disclosure of information other than in a report by the Commissioner. There are similar provisions in subsequent legislation establishing the Local Commissioners for Administration, the Health Service Commissioners and the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Commissioner for Complaints, to whom the recommendations also apply. Here again, as with the question of Inland Revenue and other official agencies, there are not only considerations of confidentiality to be considered, but also practical implications for the effective operation of the system.

The question of confidentiality also arises in the various recommendations put forward by the Commission in respect of disclosures and registers of interests by local councillors and members of certain public bodies. The Commission directed a good deal of thought to the question of conflicts of interest and put forward a number of proposals for improving existing safeguards. As regards local government, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, a number of their proposals endorsed those suggested earlier by the Committee on Local Government Rules of Conduct under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud. There are proposals not only about disclosures and registers of interests, but for a strengthening of the national code of local government conduct. As for the repeal of the present statutory requirements on disclosure of interests by local government employees, when Government Departments have found a means of satisfying themselves that effective measures have been introduced to eliminate any conflict between a local government officer's official duties and any outside work he may undertake, we will come forward with our views on the matter. Certainly on this point the Government are consulting the local authority associations about the Royal Commission's proposals, and we shall announce our conclusions as soon as it is feasible to do so. But for the present let me say that the Commission seem to me to have provided a number of important pointers to the way in which safeguards could be maximised.

Then there are the Commission's recommendations about conflicts of interest. Staff rules and codes of conduct are also relevant to a wide range of other bodies; the nationalised industries, the National Health Service and many other organisations and agencies which fall within the public sector. Having set out general guidelines, the Commission agreed that the requirements of these bodies were likely to vary in accordance with their functions and the circumstances in which they operated, and they therefore recognised that no uniform set of rules was likely to suit them all. We would certainly endorse that conclusion.

But we also consider that each body needs adequate safeguards against possible malpractice. Clear guidance must be given both to the members and employees of such bodies. It will often, as the Royal Commission recognised, not be appropriate for—nor indeed within the powers of—Government Departments to monitor or enforce safeguards adopted by the bodies, for example in their staff rules. But we are considering what advice and guidance might be offered and, where appropriate, what assurances should be sought. We shall certainly draw the attention of public sector bodies to the Royal Commission's recommendations with the aim of fostering a consistent general approach to these matters.

The Government agree with the Royal Commission that public bodies should have adequate machinery to deal with any public complaints of malpractice and that the police should be notified if there is reason to suspect the commission of a criminal offence involving corruption. The attention of public sector bodies will be drawn to this requirement in the course of our general consultations about the report. We also agree in principle that there should be clearly defined police procedures for dealing with allegations of corruption and that complaints should be brought to the attention of senior officers as soon as possible.

In reply to the specific question asked by Lord Allen of Abbeydale, we shall be undertaking further consultation on the Royal Commission's proposals for new police procedures in this field with the police, and indeed we are already in touch with the Association of Chief Police Officers on it. As the noble Lord said, these new procedures can be introduced without legislation, but first we wish to satisfy ourselves, by consultation with those directly concerned, that the fairly detailed recommendations which the Commission have put forward provide the best practicable means of achieving the objects they had in mind. In concluding, I should again like to express my gratitude to all those who have contributed to this debate. The Royal Commission has given us an invaluable basis from which to start and your Lordships' additional comments and suggestions are most welcome. We shall reflect on them very carefully.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, a valuable and interesting debate of this kind is seldom improved by a second speech from the mover and I am certainly not going to attempt one now. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has spoken very fully on behalf of the Government and we are grateful to him for doing so. He has commented in detail on many of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission, and we shall need to read in Hansard the text of what he said. It is sad that so often Ministerial speeches have to be read with such care afterwards in order to find clues as to their real meaning, but I have a feeling that buried down there somewhere are a few points of real substance which can be pursued at a later stage.

All that remains for me to do is to thank all those noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who spoke with such experience; the only person who was a member of both the Royal Commission chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, and the earlier inquiry under the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud. I also want to mention the noble Lord, Lord Morris, who added to the problems which always face a maiden speaker by choosing an occasion to address the House for the first time in the presence of his stepfather, who was chairman of the Royal Commission.

My Lords, corruption and corrupt practices are not going to go away. It is for Government and for Parliament to ensure that standards are set and are maintained. A debate like this is part of the process by which public policy is made or changed. It is hard to tell at what point public opinion begins to shift. I do not think I am alone in believing that changes are needed in the law and practice relating to corruption, and I hope that this debate will help towards that end. With the leave of the House, I beg to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.